How Bill Belichick, Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh mastered NFL QB changes.

By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange  |  Sept. 29, 2016 at 2:00 PM
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We have heard the mantra so often it is ingrained into the psyche: football is the ultimate team game.

We also have been told that quarterback is the most important position in sports, so how do we reconcile the two concepts?

Is it team?

Is it quarterback?

Actually, neither.

It is really an organizational game, dominated by individuals. Five teams have started the season with 3-0 records, and four of them underwent tectonic shifts at quarterback. In each case, someone had to navigate through those choppy waters.

Baltimore is the only one among the five 3-0 teams that did not change quarterbacks, although in a sense it did because Joe Flacco is coming back from a season-ending injury last November. Flacco did nothing particularly special in the three games so far this year, but the Ravens benefitted from perhaps the softest schedule of anybody, beating Buffalo, Cleveland and Jacksonville, teams that were a combined 16-32 a year ago.

All of the other 3-0 teams had to defeat at least one 2015 playoff team (and legitimate Super Bowl contender this year) in their first three games.

How did they manage the quarterback turmoil?

Well, a little historical perspective is in order. Aside from Chuck Noll, who created the modern Pittsburgh Steelers and won four Super Bowls, the three coaches who have won at least three Super Bowls --Bill Belichick, Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh -- mastered quarterback change.

Bill Belichick

Belichick deserves credit, of course, for getting through three games with first Jimmy Garoppolo and then Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, but we should have seen this coming. In 2008, when Tom Brady was lost for the year with an opening-game injury, Matt Cassel went 10-5 as the fill-in starter.

It gets downright boring listening to Belichick's always forward-looking, "next man up" cliches, but the proof is in the results. And it always bears repeating that Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells never won a playoff game without Belichick on his staff. Parcells' postseason record with Belichick: 11-5. Without Belichick: 0-3.

Joe Gibbs

Gibbs' teams won three Super Bowls in 10 years with three different quarterbacks, a degree of difficulty we are likely never to see repeated. Normally, championship coaches are inextricably linked with their championship quarterbacks - Walsh with Joe Montana, Vince Lombardi with Bart Starr, Chuck Noll with Terry Bradshaw, Tom Landry with Roger Staubach.

Gibbs succeeded by refining the Sid Gillman/Don Coryell offense and adding his own twists -- a huge powerful, offensive line that looks positively puny by today's standards, and a strong running back. Thus he was able to plug quarterbacks in.

Bill Walsh

Walsh of course, won all three of his Super Bowls with Montana and largely created the modern, short passing game, building on threads of the Gillman playbook. But Walsh also won two-thirds of his games with the 49ers when Montana was out with injuries, plugging in quarterbacks like Matt Cavanaugh and Jeff Kemp until he acquired Steve Young.

No one else in the NFL ever thought of Young as future Hall of Fame material until Walsh got him and refined his game. Thus he made the 49ers that rarest of teams able to replace one great quarterback with another, as Green Bay has done more recently.

Which brings us to today, and the other three 3-0 teams all had someone with an extensive quarterback resume to help get through their transition.

Philadelphia went through an entire offseason preparing Sam Bradford to be its quarterback, then jumped on a trade offer, dealt Bradford to the Vikings and plugged rookie Carson Wentz into the lineup. The move looks like pure genius now but it really was something of a fluke, because if Minnesota hadn't lost Teddy Bridgewater to injury, Bradford would be the Philly starter and Wentz would be riding the bench. Doug Pederson, the Eagles' coach, is a former NFL quarterback.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, give GM Rick Spielman credit for the Bradford trade and coach Mike Zimmer for making it work. But the unsung hero is offensive coordinator Norv Turner who, despite his shortcomings as a head coach, is one of the league's most highly respected quarterback gurus -- thought highly enough by Troy Aikman to be his presenter at the Hall of Fame.

Denver has a general manager of whom you might have heard. Some people thought John Elway was nuts for letting Brock Osweiler leave for Houston after the Broncos nurtured him as their quarterback of the future, but Elway gambled on being able to fill the spot and counting on the league's best defense to help carry the team. Trevor Siemian won the job in training camp. So far, so good.

Don't think the early success of these 3-0 teams is going unnoticed by owners of other teams.

These seamless transitions are simply another sign that with the right leadership and right plan -- and someone who understands the quarterback position -- it is possible to survive through difficult times and even transitions in the NFL.

--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than five decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

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